Saturday, January 12, 2019

My First Summer Working in the Sierra

Thinking about how one can capture the feeling of soaring through a summer working in the Sierra, more specifically Yosemite, where the land was referred to as the Range of Light by none other than John Muir, one of the most important dead white dudes that tramped through its meadows, fields, glaciers and mountaintops galore, and also one of the reasons it is a National Park today, is one daunting task. From the moment that I received the email from Lasting Adventures that not only would spark my shift to working more full time on the West Coast, but even better than that, in my absolute favorite National Park, THE National Park that I had my first backpacking trip in, Yosemite, I was ecstatic. How could I not be?
Tenaya Lake, the largest in the park
Yosemite is not only known for its mountains, check! With peaks topping out at a little over 13,000 ft. they are nothing to sneeze at. Lakes, check! Thousands of them throughout the park actually. Waterfalls? Only some of the tallest in the U.S. with Yosemite Falls towering at 2,425 feet. Trees? You ‘betcha with the massive, delectably potent Jeffrey Pine and the ginormous cone of the Sugar interspersed with the massive Sequoia that has groves scattered throughout the park. Towering rock structures? Oh yeah, it definitely has that too. From Half Dome to El Capitan, scene to some of the most famous record-breaking rock climbs in the world. Wildflowers? Only around 1,450 distinct species in the park. This would be my home for the summer. Lottery of life considered won.
The company I was to work for, Lasting Adventures? Well it is a nonprofit that as well as having a summer camp to get the youth out there experiencing backpacking and all the skills that they learn with it, from hard, technical skills like building a tarp to soft, interpersonal skills which teach them how to communicate effectively in a group setting, whether it's in the backcountry or the classroom.
Lasting Adventures also has a guide service, which helps funds the trips for the youth, ranging from Valley tours to Half Dome in a day and backpacking trips of varying lengths. The company was initially founded in 1997 and today is the number one rated guide service in Yosemite on TripAdvisor. Yeah, I think I can get with that.
Upon entering this job I had only been to Yosemite a handful of times, including my first backpacking trip from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley and back on the Panorama Trail, and ALSO my first solo backpacking trip along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, so I’ll admit, I was definitely no expert, but I already had a deep love for the park. I decided the best way to get to know the place even more was by buying a bunch of guidebooks and taking another personal trip with the time I had off between gigs, roaming around, flipping pages and sniffing trees along the way to get acquainted with my new surroundings. So that's what I did.
Sugar pine cone, the longest cone of any conifer, wowzers!

My solo trip started from Porcupine Creek on Tioga Road, checking out Indian Rock Arch on my way down to North Dome (did you know there is a natural rock arch in the park??), where I stayed the first night, waking up to views of Half Dome. Stellar. The next day I went past Yosemite Falls and on to the top of El Cap, where I would spend the second night and wake up to the silhouettes of 3 climbers hiking from the edge of the cliff ending their 5 day climb on the wall, epic! Eventually I made my way back the way I came, staying one more night along the Yosemite Creek Trail and having to ford a very, very icy cold Yosemite Creek that went up to my chest and shocked me into getting swiftly to the other side right before hitting the parking lot. The trip was great not only because it got me even more acquainted with the area that I would be working, but it also provided me with some solitary time that I knew I would not be getting for a while, jumping into a job where I was on the clock 24/7, working right next to a co-guide and when not in the backcountry, living with 25 other guides in a small space outside the park. There are some amazing benefits to working in this field, and some things that are less than ideal, and not having much alone time is one of them, but I believe a small price to pay for having a job where your 'office' is the great outdoors and you are rewarded daily in various ways for what you do.
Sunrise 'reward' at May Lake
After my solo trip I made my way to the Lasting Adventures guide house to meet my new co-workers and learn what this summer was really going to be like. Walking blissfully into the guide house after taking a trip would be a tradition that I began to treasure, stopping for a refreshing shower at Half Dome Village and picking up some other refreshments at the Village Store before the scenic hour+ long drive home would be as routine to me as digging a cat-hole. Pass by all the scenic outlooks. Brake for the tourist in front of you admiring the view at 15 mph. Finally, exit the park and pass by Rush Creek Lodge, contemplating treating yourself to a nice dinner out. Continue meandering on the winding 120 through the partially burned, but still wholly beautiful Stanislaus National Forest. Spot a glaring John Muir Historical Route sign, turn, slow down, turn the music down and finally cruise into a parking spot. Take a deep breath, releasing any anxieties from the week as you exhale and prepare to engage in a warming welcome by whomever is at the guide house, wanting to hear all about your last trip and/or personal escapades.
Enjoying the view of Half Dome on our training trip, our Gregory packs supporting us along the way...
Journeying to this job from the East Coast I was a bit hesitant, not because of the location, I absolutely love the West Coast and what it has to offer, but because of the amazing community that I had left behind. Ask any Outdoor Educator what are some benefits of their job and no doubt you will get replies about being rewarded because of seeing the youth out there adventuring and hopefully developing a lengthy relationship with the outdoors, but almost certainly another reply that will arise will be the sense of community in this field. Imagine you download an app to find the most amazing individuals to become friends with and you can select so many filters that link your similarities and sensibilities but you also have enough differences to make for interesting conversation, whether it’s hearing about the story of how your newly acquired friends got engaged on top of a peak in South America or how another taught in China for 7 years. Everyone I worked with, despite any differences, shared a common quest, the quest for adventure. I was constantly inspired this summer by things that co-workers had done in the past, were doing that summer, and also adventures they were planning for the future. You couldn't help but to be inspired. The tales intertwined and entertained and the commonalities filled the spaces of the marble jar that I thought was already full. I have found more of my kin. 
A handful of the wonderful humans I work with
Training started at the headwaters of June and the bonds were filled with epoxy and ready to solidify by the end of summer. The granite wall was set, and it was high. Knowledge about Yosemite, the origins and natural history of the park, the geology, and of course the flora and fauna was strongly encouraged to be learned throughout the season and was something we always urged each other on to discover and know, quizzing randomly from the trivia books that were scattered around the guide house while waiting for the weekly dinners that were put on by the administration. A reminder of that sense of community and also a chance to hear from all the guides a brief snippet of what made their week, whether it was a comical tidbit that a client said or a touching moment that they had with kids on the summer camp program, each week when we listened to each others' stories it was a heartwarming reminder of why we do what we do. 
Some of the astounding flora I saw this summer alone!
After returning from staff training our schedule was finally posted and I went from worrying about whether I was going to work enough to worrying about what I was going to do on my short time off (1 week all summer!). I was beyond stoked to get out there and get my feet, calves and thighs wet with the trickling, glacier-fed waters of Yosemite.
The first trip I was on was with two other guides, one also new, one a returner and we had the privilege of getting the grand tour of the icons in Yosemite, heading first to May Lake and taking an adventure route up Mt. Hoffman to moving slightly south and over Clouds Rest, culminating with challenging those in the group who were ready to muscle up Half Dome. Our last night we stayed in the tent city that is Little Yosemite Valley, finally coaxing the entire group to join in and sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody after dinner before presenting them with their bracelets to commemorate the trip and appointing them with their trail names that they rightfully earned over the last 5 days, moments never to be forgotten. The next morning we headed down the highway aka the Mist Trail and made our way to the Half Dome Village parking lot to de-rig the trip. After cleaning up a bit we would head over to the pizza deck, scarfing down as many slices as our bellies could take while entertaining parents with stories about bear sightings and heroics that their kids demonstrated, even if that was just trying backcountry pasta that had dehydrated vegetables in it.
The spine of Cloud's Rest
Getting pumped for Half Dome
Heading down the Mist Trail at just the right moment...
After my first trip that covered astonishing ground I was beyond stoked to co-lead a 13 day adventure that would cover even more. We started at the Ten Lakes Trailhead, heading up and over into the Ten Lakes basin where we would spend the 2nd night in the backcountry. I was utterly delighted. This was only my 2nd trip leading this summer and I was continuing to see all sorts of different and outright amazing landscapes. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of summer would bring!
Kind bars, my fuel for the summer!

The day after Ten Lakes we meandered around the mountains, slithering around Tuolumne Pass and I continued to be in awe of all the snow that still hadn't melted in the backcountry and the wildflowers that were beginning to emerge. It was beyond gorgeous. But with melting snow comes...mosquitoes. Ugh. That day we had one of the worst days of hiking with mosquitoes on the trail that summer. We had stopped at Polly Dome Lakes for the night and the morale was low, real low. Lots of hiking through swarms of bugs, sweating and hoofing it and not sure exactly where our next campsite was going to be doesn't led to happy campers. We finally found a spot that we hoped was far enough away from the lakes that we could escape a bit of the endless torture that the mosquitoes presented at the beginning of summer., didn't work that well. That night I realized more of the benefits of a fire. There are the benefits of being able to cook on it, for sure, and for warmth, no doubt, but the main benefit it served that night was comfort. It was a warm glove to those who were cold, it was a deterrent to the mosquitoes, it was a backup in case our stoves called it quits which we thought might happen, it was magical to watch, but beyond everything, it was something that helped uplift the camaraderie of the group, which was in need of much up-lifting.

After moving on and relaxing at the many waterfalls surrounding Glen Aulin, including taking a day hike to Waterwheel Falls, it was time to head in for our resupply. The timing of this day was crucial. The sooner we got there and got stuff done the sooner we could be on our way and head to our next campsite, which, since we needed to camp 4 miles away from the backcountry offices, would make for one of our biggest days yet. We needed to start early, like 4am early. After resupply we headed out on the JMT and then the Rafferty Creek Trail, eventually making our way around Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, seeing the many mules coming in and setting up the camp for the summer. Sweet! Vogelsang was such a gem and became one of my favorite spots in the park that I didn't know existed before this summer. Even though I've never been to the Alps for some reason I thought in my head that the area surrounding Vogelsang is what the Alps look like. Maybe one day I'll find out. Until then, I have Vogelsang....
Hiking in early for our re-supply
The following day we headed down to Merced Lake, making sure to take time and relax in the wonderfully refreshing water below the waterfall that was by the High Sierra Camp there. On this trip we spent our last 2 nights in Little Yosemite Valley after walking through the crazy beautiful burn recovery area in Echo Valley. It was sweet to witness such a contrast between death and new life right there in the forest as we hiked on with lupines as high as our chests in some places. A maze of wildflowers. A-mazing.
Over the course of the rest of the summer I had quite a few more trips, ranging from a Boy Scout Troop from Pleasonton, CA that was supposed to go to Philmont but got diverted because of the fires there, to a 13 day Young Women’s Adventure program on which we read the entire We Should All be Feminists book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (which I highly recommend!). I was unsure of what I was going to be able to accomplish as a guide with these trips, easing into my first year with a new company and figuring out how much you can really get into with groups while hiking in the vast backcountry of Yosemite. 
4th of July celebration right below Mt. Hoffmann
I pleasantly discovered that I could really do as much as I wanted. Throughout the summer I had kids engaged in ‘meeting trees’, making SMART goals, fielding introspective questions as dinner fodder, finding the power of positivity and their attitudes whenever there is uncertainty or adversity, forgetting about technology and social media, and most definitely laughing uncontrollably after getting outed in a slack jaw dance party.
Slack jaw dancing it out
Over the entire summer I had the opportunity to challenge humans to do things they didn't think possible, to see sights I didn't think were possible, to experience the delight of kids seeing their first shooting stars, to begin and end my season with snowball fights, to wake up with the sunrise, to see more marmots than I could count, to challenge my own fear of heights, to encourage women to get in the outdoors and always work on being better versions of themselves, to tell more riddles and jokes than I care to count, to teach how to navigate off trail travel, to be surrounded by hundreds of butterflies on my way up to Ragged Peak with a group, to be with kids and adults alike as they reached the highest in elevation they had ever been, to test my knot tying skills in setting up a tarp after being poured on from the gates of heaven for hours straight, not to mention the lightning and thunder, to be out in nature for the majority of summer, and last but definitely not least, to be grateful for every. damn. day. No matter what. I got to do what I love to do most in the world in one of my favorite places in the world. Annnd I got paid for it. I was in heaven.

Everything can't always be rainbows and unicorns though. One thing that was a for sure bummer about working in the Sierra this summer was the fires. It started out a little scary. Our guide house was getting ashed on and the sky turning all kinds of crazy beautiful colors. Are you supposed to be able to look at the sun? Programs and trips still went out into the field. The fire still burned. Near the middle of our 13 day Young Women's Adventure trip and at the beginning of August there was a lot of hesitancy about whether trips should be canceled or not. You could wake up in the morning and the sky would be perfectly clear, but by noon you couldn’t see a mountain that was 20ft. away.
The decision was finally made for us. The road that we usually took to get in the park was now closed. Although the last trip I was on finished all 13 days, we hiked out a day early to stay in the Tuolumne Campground so that we could drive out to Lee Vining and go up and over Sonora Pass to even get out of the park and go to the meetup spot where the parents could get their children. Dang.
Large as after fire
The next week, which would have been my last, all trips canceled. The park’s air quality was too bad. What a way to end a summer season! Unfortunately fire is one of those things that you can’t exactly predict or entirely prevent and is also at times a very natural part of how the environment runs things. Living in California it has affected me a lot this year and I doubt it will be the last time, but that is one of the prices to pay for living in a land that is so stinkin’ beautiful.
Strong, powerful women in front of Mt. Conness on our Young Women's Adventure course
So how can one really capture the feeling of working in the Sierra? I believe John Muir definitely set the bar high when he said “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in”. Yosemite has this pull for me, I want to go in and stay in. I want to know everything about it, from the glaciers that formed the valleys, to the mountain heather covering the creek-sides, to the famous climbers that are constantly in the valley (I’m looking at you Honnold). I want to go out there and hike and run all the trails, see all the waterfalls, smell the fresh, mountain air, identify all the gorgeous wildflowers, gasp from the high peaks at the beauty that surrounds me, and really just BE a part of Yosemite. If even for one summer at a time.

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